Stew

My Kids Will Never Meet Their Grandma, but Her Stew Will Nourish Them Forever

How I finally found my mother's goulash recipe, 20 years later.

August 20, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Mom and me.

Growing up, we had an annual tradition in my family: On the first day of school, my mother would cook us Hungarian goulash for dinner. It’s a slightly confusing tradition for several reasons, foremost being that my mother wasn’t Hungarian. Not even a little bit. Her family was Sicilian-American by way of Brooklyn, and while she did make a lot of conventional American mom food like mac and cheese, chicken cutlets, and something she called “Mexican casserole,” most of what she cooked week to week was inspired by her Italian roots.

Except the goulash. The return of the school year always meant, without fail, that sweet and tangy stew served over a heaping pile of fluffy egg noodles. I was never a big meat eater, but I devoured that dish. It was deep, hardy, and comforting.

Unlike with her fried meatballs, eggplant Parmesan, and tortellini alfredo, I never actually learned how to make my mother's goulash despite it being one of my favorites. In the years after she died (when I was 16), I tried to recreate the dish but couldn’t find her recipe. It was tucked away somewhere in the many cookbooks I kept of hers. I knew that the sauce simmered for a long time, that onions were a key component, and that ketchup was involved. But I just couldn’t piece together the other missing details.

The return of the school year always meant, without fail, that sweet and stew served over a heaping pile of fluffy egg noodles. I was never a big meat eater, but I devoured that dish. It was sweet, hardy, and comforting.

Over the next 20 years, I searched far and wide to recreate my mother’s goulash, getting pretty close through a combination of taste memory, kitchen experience, and diligent internet research. One such recipe on AllRecipes.com, “Hungarian Goulash II,” had the dynamic sweet and tangy element I remembered. And with a few tweaks, it eventually became my own go-to recipe, one that I started cooking for my family.

When my oldest daughter started school a few years ago, I decided it was time to restart the tradition. Even though I hadn't found my mother's goulash, my newfangled version soon became one of my daughter's favorites.

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Top Comment:
“This story made me tear up! So special. I've had similar adventures trying to grasp my grandmother's recipes. The goulash looks delicious! ”
— Emanuelle L.
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And then, I found it.

It was in an old copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook, the kind with a hard cover and removable pages bound together by a coil spine. I had searched for this cookbook so many times looking for that goulash recipe, and now, 20 years after my mother's passing, here it was right in front of me. Under “MAIN DISHES" (interestingly neither listed under “Meat Dishes” nor “Soups and Stews”), her handwritten notes still in the margins: “USE LESS SALT, OR NONE AT ALL.”

The Betty Crocker recipe was so much simpler than what I had been making. I had been using the classic beef stew approach, dipping chunks of meat into a seasoned flour, searing them, and then removing them from the pan to make a sauce, whereas my mother’s recipe (well, Betty’s) just simmered all of the ingredients together in one pan.

I was happy to find that my memory hadn’t entirely failed me because: Ketchup was indeed involved, as were onions and dried mustard. My own touches have included apple cider vinegar for extra tang, two kinds of paprika, and when I can be Super Mom, homemade beef stock. But all of these are really embellishments—the original dish is perfect without them.

The funny thing is, after so much time and preoccupation trying to find my mother’s recipe, I might stick to the version I’ve created myself. Because I realize it’s not just about the exact list of ingredients or method. The search to recreate this particular dish was itself the point: my effort to bring her back in some way, by finding that old taste of my childhood so I could share it with my own family years later.

My children will never know my mom, and of course this makes me sad. But they do get to experience a small piece of her, and my love for her, through this dish. My mother only made goulash once a year, but whenever my daughters ask for it, I oblige. I want them to remember every detail.

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 Shannon Sarna

Written by: Shannon Sarna

9 Comments

Emanuelle L. August 30, 2019
This story made me tear up! So special. I've had similar adventures trying to grasp my grandmother's recipes. The goulash looks delicious!
 
Susige August 23, 2019
I love this story about finding this dish and making it hers!
 
healthierkitchen August 22, 2019
lovely tribute, shannon!
 
Diane August 21, 2019
what an absolutely heartwarming story
 
Melissa W. August 21, 2019
I knew exactly the recipe you were describing when you mentioned ketchup. My mom made it too and I could tell it was the old Betty Crocker recipe. I love that stuff. Haven’t made it in years.
 
Emily G. August 20, 2019
What a beautiful memory - and a wonderful tradition.

My mother was Hungarian (second generation). We ate what we called kropletzla (https://www.thespruceeats.com/hungarian-cabbage-noodles-recipe-kaposzta-teszta-113666 (onions, cabbage and wide noodles), chicken fricassee, and stuffed cabbage, made with gingersnaps to get that sweet/sour taste.

We've not talked in probably twenty years but love following you and how your life has turned out.
 
Daniel D. August 20, 2019
God I love ANYTHING Ms Sarna has to say about.....
Food
Friends
Family
 
Eric K. August 20, 2019
"The search to recreate this particular dish was itself the point: my effort to bring her back in some way, by finding that old taste of my childhood so I could share it with my own family years later."

This broke my heart. Because I also relate so much. I never got to meet my mother's mother, but I can only imagine what a wonderful woman she must've been to create such a loving human being.
 
M August 20, 2019
Tastes change. It's definitely the effort and tradition that counts!

So often the recipes, methods, and ingredients that we think are generational came from product labels and popular cookbooks, or are modifications made during mid-century struggles. I'm surprised there was never a cook-through-this-book blog where the writer realized their family's recipes all came from it.